Rawboned, angry Martin Luther at 34 in 1520
from a copper etching by Lucas Cranach
It is never too often to remind the curious how the ‘Luther affair’ began in 1517. Following is an excerpt from pages 186 through 189 of Frederick the Wise: Seen and Unseen Lives of Martin Luther’s Protector (Wild Centuries Press, 2011) that includes the personal recollection of the great troublemaker himself:
No one less than the pope himself depended on indulgences to finance not just grandiose plans like the basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome but the survival of the Vatican and the Roman church itself. Indulgences pervaded the life of Europe. Luther’s own sovereign Frederick was deep into the indulgence business, rewarding each viewer of his relics thousands of years of relief from purgatory. The indulgence business however that sparked Luther’s tirade was that of Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz (although Luther was at first ignorant of who was behind it). Because Albrecht and his Brandenburgs owed such vast amounts of money to the Fuggers the indulgence trade after 1514 became aggressive and ugly. A cynical jingo circulated.
As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,A cold-eyed assessor put the sinner somewhere on a sliding scale of payment that demanded 25 guldens from a prince or archbishop to a promise of fasting and prayer from the indigent. fn 2 Woodcuts and street poets mocked this indulgence business run for the pope, Archbishop Albrecht and the Fuggers. The coffer or chest could only be opened later in the presence of a notary by a sequence of three keys. Adjacent to Frederick’s territory one key was held by the commissioner of indulgences representing Archbishop Albrecht and the church. An agent of the Fuggers held another key. The local secular authority held the third. Luther recalled the affair in 1541 in a tract titled Wider Hans Worst (‘Against Hans Wurst’).
The soul from purgatory springs. fn 1
It happened in the year ’17 that a preaching monk named Johann Tetzel, a great loudmouth . . . traveled around with indulgences selling grace for money as expensive or as cheaply as he was able. At the time I was preacher in the cloister and a young Doctor newly come from the forge, hot and enthused for Holy Scriptures. When many people from Wittenberg went to Jüterbog and Zerbst for indulgences . . . I began to preach with moderation that one might do something better and more certain than buy an indulgence. I had already preached such here at the castle against indulgences, and so came into disfavor with Duke Frederick, for his foundation here was very dear to him . . . It came to me how Tetzel had preached gruesome, abominable articles of which I will mention a few. Namely: he had such clemency and power from the pope that if one had deflowered or even impregnated the Holy Virgin Mary, the mother of God, he could forgive it if that same one would put in the chest what was required . . . Another: if St. Peter were here now, he would not have greater clemency or power than he himself had. Another: he would not trade places in heaven with St. Peter; for he had with the indulgence saved more souls than St. Peter had with his sermons. Another: when one dropped a penny into the chest for a soul in purgatory, as soon as the coin chinked in the bottom the soul flew up into heaven . . . At the time I did not know who was to get the money . . . I wrote a letter with the 95 theses to the bishop at Magdeburg admonishing and pleading that he stop Tetzel and prevent such heavy-handed things from being preached, lest it might give rise to public unrest. Such was his duty as Archbishop . . . But no answer came to me . . . fn 3Most of Luther’s 95 theses that he sent to the bishop as well as supposedly posted for discussion at the castle church (because it was the university church) on All Saints Eve (October 31) were well within the bounds of academic disputations. As he had earlier expressed in sermons he did not reject every aspect of indulgences but emphasized their use only in relieving temporal punishments imposed by the church. Again he objected to the false sense of security created by indulgences. Yet in his long list of theses, ten (42 though 51) went dangerously beyond the bounds of disputations. Most of these ten began “Christians are to be taught”. They virtually usurped the pope because they clearly stated just the opposite of what the pope was doing. For example, thesis 43 stated “Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to one in need does better than he who buys indulgences”. Thesis 50 stated “Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the preachers of indulgences he would rather have St. Peter’s church in ashes than have it built with the flesh and bones of his sheep”. fn 4
Luther was a baby at politics. The first rumors of political consequence for posting the 95 theses alarmed him. It was quite natural that rumors would say Frederick was behind the 95 theses. The rumors said Frederick was jealous of Archbishop Albrecht. The rumors said Frederick encouraged Luther because he was jealously guarding his own indulgences and resented some of his Saxons venturing over the territorial borders to spend their Saxon coins on indulgences. This misunderstanding was so wrenching to Luther that he offered to participate in any disputation on indulgences to prove it was the issue of spiritual importance and nothing else. fn 5 But who would give him the satisfaction? Although alarmed, Luther at this point was nevertheless still unaware of the enormity of the poison in his tirade against indulgences. His aim did not go beyond the Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz.
When Spalatin finally read the 95 theses to Frederick, his worldly sovereign concluded grimly, “You will see that the pope will not like this.” fn 7
[END OF EXCERPT]
And there the curious have it. A blustering naive genius ripe for the Roman fire except for the protection of the most powerful prince of the Holy Roman Empire. Oh, to be born a Saxon at this time! For in this same tract Luther states that Frederick had even once intervened to save the loudmouth Tetzel, a Saxon condemned by Emperor Maximilian to death by drowning. Oh, to be born a Saxon!
1. Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand (Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950), 78, 87 (Hardcover). In German from Robert Herndon Fife , The Revolt of Martin Luther (NY: Columbia Un. Press, 1957), 255: “Sobald das Geld in Kasten klingt, Die Seele aus dem Fegefeuer springt.”
2. Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483-1521 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985), 180–182.
3. Excerpts (translated by the author) Luther’s 1541 ‘Against Hans Wurst’ in Hutten Müntzer Luther v. 2 ed. Forschungs- und Gedenkstätten der klassischen deutschen Literatur in Weimar, Aufbau-Verlag Berlin und Weimar, 1978.
4. Preserved Smith, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther (Houghton Mifflin, 1911), 41–42.
5. Brecht 1985, 203.
6 Brecht 1985, 202–203. Also, Ingetraut Ludolphy, Friedrich der Weise: Kurfürst von Sachsen, 1463-1525 (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1984), 60, noted Frederick began wearing eyeglasses in 1516. Spalatin and others probably read a great deal to Frederick.